[Photography] Interview with Michael Naify

by A.M. Larks

Click on each image to enlarge

[KELP JOURNAL] “Extraction” is a series of photographs taken at what looks to be a mining site over a period of time. Can you talk about this landscape and why you chose it as the subject of your series?

[MICHAEL NAIFY] I have made this series of images around extraction as my wife moved her aging mother to that area to live close to family, just after the Vale trailing dam disaster back in 2019. I went to visit the devastated city (Brumadinho) soon after and took a series of photos that got me interested in the mining activities, which are so pervasive that the entire state is named after the activity of mining (Minas Gerais). As one drives around the area, one cannot avoid the mines and dams that are everywhere to be seen. These immense mines are part of the landscape. I have since started to go further away to get a more complete vision of the industry and its effect on the state and the people who live there.

[KJ] One thing that has been on my mind ever since I first looked at these photographs is how on earth were you able to capture these photographs at all? Were you on a mountain? In a plane?

[MN] I first started my investigation by driving to the mines and then trying to gain access. I was turned away many times, and the access is quite difficult as the mining companies try to keep their visibility to a minimum with fences and security guards. I would hike in from many miles away. My problem was that the mines were so immense that I could not find a vantage point that would allow me to photograph the mines that would properly show their scale. When COVID-19 struck, I came back to the U.S. two days before lockdown, and during the months I was home, I got a drone and taught myself to use it. When I returned to Brazil I no longer had to worry about fences or security guards. I didn’t need to go to the mine, I just had to get close enough. The drone liberated me, allowing me to see the mines from many angles and see things that I could never have gotten to with my hiking and sneaking in.

[KJ] In these photographs, time is measured differently than how it is traditionally captured in landscapes. The natural seasons are not present in this other-worldly type space. Yet, it is still present in the various changes differentiating the photographs. Was it your intent to capture time in this manner?

[MN] After visiting these sites by foot, I saw that the devastation is so complete. I visited mines which have been abandoned some fifty years and yet nothing was able to grow in the mined area. The mining currently taking place is much more intensive and much more destructive. I wanted the images to capture the sense that the extraction process is a zero-sum proposition. What is removed is gone forever, and what remains is barren and will remain so for millennia as monuments to our voracious appetite for the things both important and banal.

[KJ] Perspective is such an important aspect in art, especially in photography, and many of your photographs are taken from a bird’s-eye view, one that a human would not normally encounter. We are often in the world rather than above it. What purpose does this perspective give the view that say, a close-up may not?

[MN] The question of perspective is critical to this work. We live in a world where we have become sensitized to seeing it in a certain way. Normally the horizon is a thing that grounds how we see landscapes of any kind. By removing the horizon and looking straight down, I am removing our perception of the known world and putting us in a position of seeing things which at first glance seem abstract. Beyond the purely artistic value of seeing an image rendered abstractly, the new perspective brings us to an understanding we would struggle to understand by simply looking at a mine from the edge of one. We see things in a certain way but that is not the only way of understanding. Like an architect who designs a space, if he first makes a rendering of that space, he can then perceive it in ways that would be very difficult to do by using our imaginations. I hope that the images bring a sense of wonder and curiosity to the issues around extraction.

[KJ] Activism and art are often intertwined as they are in this series. Why do you think art is a great vehicle for activism?

[MN] I believe that art is essential to getting into people’s minds. It can be the entryway to the discussion around the issues of the environment. Ignorance is indeed bliss, so when we see that in order to live the lives we live now we must destroy habitats, and we can at least choose how we do that, at what cost and under what conditions. What I have seen in Minas Gerais has shown me that the ultimate objective of the process of extraction there is monetary gain for the companies that do the extraction with only pennies going towards the inhabitants of the area. One day when the mining activities end, there will remain nothing in its place but ecological devastation and a ruined economy because only a very minimal investment has been made in education, reclamation, or in the living condition of the people who will continue to inhabit the area.

[KJ] You have a storied career, art book publisher in Brazil, building restorer in Italy, and now a MFA student. What is it that draws you to the intersection of art and people?

[MN] I suppose that I am like a child in that I enjoy the sense of wonder. I was fascinated by the art I was exposed to in Brazil and that led me to sharing that sense of wonder to Brazil through the art books we published there. My restoration projects in Italy were a significant cultural endeavor for me. It was so rewarding to work with a group of people (artisans, skilled workers, and architects and engineers) working towards an end that brought back to life what was once abandoned. The MFA was a way to bring together the previous endeavors. Going back to grad school in my 50s was quite different than when I was in my late 20s. I found that I was much more invested in what I was learning. Again, I think it is really just a different perception at that point in my life.

Michael Naify is an artist currently living in New York, NY. His work deals with politics, environment, as well as the psychological/philosophical conundrums. He has lived and worked for many years in Italy and now that he is back in the USA, he has focused on the political ruptures dislocating in his home country. He started a publishing company in Brazil (Cosac & Naify) that was the largest publisher of art books, which closed in 2015. In Italy he was involved in the purchase and restoration of historically significant buildings. Upon returning to the United States, he decided to dedicate himself to art and enrolled in the MFA program at the San Francisco Art Institute. Education: The University of San Francisco, 1989 - BA History; The University of San Francisco, 1992 - MBA; San Francisco Art Institute, 2017 - MFA